Wednesday, January 6, 2010

assessment in arts education

A long one this time.

As I have said elsewhere, I am fascinated by learning and teaching creative process. I am far less fascinated by the way creative process is too often taught in schools. Creative process is by its nature exploratory, experiential, and experimental, not unlike science. We become curious about something, we try some things out, they either work or don't work or somewhere in between, and we assess our own work and try something new. Yet as the arts are too often taught in school, and as current assessment requires, the only worthy goal would appear to be a "successful" product according to a highly arbitrary standard. Excellent teachers do manage to find ways to work within a broken system and guide their students to a high level of creative exploration which I would call artistic success. Yet because the ways of arriving at this success are often wildly outside the accepted norms for "educational assessment," the process for teachers and students is too often much harder than necessary or desirable. There is the requirement to teach the arts like any other intellectual, academic subject, assessed in the same concrete ways. The value of arts education, however, is that it is different from other academic subjects, that it uses different skills and cognitive process. We hear a great deal of lip service to "differentiated education" while arts education, inherently "differentiated" for individual students, is not seen as fitting the accepted model of teaching style.

The fact is that we learn creative process - and I would argue that we learn anything - by trying stuff out, seeing what works and what doesn't, and by trying again. We need to not be afraid to "fail" but our current educational model is set up to avoid anything resembling "failure" at literally any cost. Because it avoids "failure" at its most literal and base level, it cannot truly nurture the much-touted "Higher-Order-Thinking-Skills" or as they are labelled "HOTS." Never mind, for the moment, that the so-called "LOTS" are also essential for daily life, but higher cognition, "valid cognition" as it was called by Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is not likely to be achieved by facility in mastering standardized tests.

I've said this many times before, but arts education teaches problem solving at both simple and complex levels, and is in itself "differentiated instruction." The assessment of higher cognition is inherently quite subjective, even if we feel that we have a good working definition of higher cognition. During the past school year, I spent a full day with other music faculty listening to the results of a rhythmic assessment which was graded via rubrics. For nearly all of the examples that we heard, the difference between "exceeds standard" "meets standard" and "sometimes meets standard" was by its nature subjective. How do you assess a rhythmic example that is generally correct, but has slight hesitation? Most of us tended to grade with leniency in those cases, but the process was really too subjective. What looks to a nonmusical administrator like a straightforward assessment is, in fact, anything but. Furthermore, such a rhythmic assessment is the least subjective sort of assessment that can be made for musical skills. This process of assessment takes complex skills, including interpretation, listening discernment, and expression, and attempts to give them specific grades. Of course, there are settings, like professional auditions, where these assessments are entirely valid. I would argue that they are not valid for elementary education and are quite difficult even for secondary education.

We are frequently told that the teacher's assessment of things like attitude, behavior and effort are "too subjective," yet these assessments are actually far more accurate and valid than "can this student play this rhythm correctly on this particular occassion?"

It is unfortunate that too few arts educators, administrators and professional organizations are willing to challenge systems of assessment which are inherently flawed and actually harmful to both teachers' and students' creative processes. It is especially unfortunate given the fact that most states have excellent standards in music. These, along with the largely parallel national standards established by MENC via NYSSMA, could be used for assessment in music education. If we truly desire to have excellent arts education be a right for every student, we must be willing to challenge and change a system that does not work, and find one that will most benefit our students. It is doubtful that this dilemma can be resolved quickly or easily, but I believe that the discussion is essential.

What do you think? Please comment, either here or via email

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